Winner of the Omnidawn 2016 1st/2nd Poetry Book Prize
Selected by Cathy Park Hong
Written in and of the protest encampments of one of the most sophisticated Occupy movements in recent history, Goddess of Democracy attempts to understand the disobedience and desperation implicated in a love for freedom. Part lyric, part autoethnography, part historical document, these poems orbit around the manifold erasures of the Umbrella protests in Hong Kong in 2014. Leung, who was in those protests while on a Fulbright grant, navigates the ethics of diasporic dis-identity, of outsiderness and passing, of privilege and the pretension of understanding, in these poems which ask: “what is / freedom when divorced from / from?”
Henry Wei Leung’s Goddess of Democracy: An Occupy Lyric is a powerful poetics on civil disobedience. The voice is both impassioned and detached, coalescing into prose passages or atomizing into words scattered on the page. Leung not only documents disobedience, but historicizes it, turns it to a global question, and asks what comes after.
Cathy Park Hong, judge of the Omnidawn 1st/2nd Poetry Book Prize
If you want to hear faint whispers of a future poetics, give a listen to Henry Wei Leung’s Goddess of Democracy. Here, a deft lyric poetry interfuses with radical democracy to compelling ends. This is a book as beautiful as it is bold, as artful in its politics as it is political in its aesthetics. Read it now!
In a bright lexicon of social resistance, Henry Leung has created a poignant, spirited, and ethically-considered collection of poems. The innovative debut is especially welcome in our times of tumult.
Henry Wei Leung’s Goddess of Democracy tears down the wall between poetry and manifesto, offering new ways to imagine freedom. His is an original voice that speaks courageously to the fears and broken hopes of our time.
Henry Wei Leung is the author of a chapbook, Paradise Hunger (Swan Scythe 2012), and the translator of Wawa’s Pei Pei the Monkey King (Tinfish, 2016). He earned his degrees from Stanford and the Helen Zell Writers’ Program, and has been the recipient of Kundiman, Soros, and Fulbright Fellowships. His poems, essays, and translations have appeared in such journals as the Crab Orchard Review, The Offing, Spillway, and ZYZZYVA. He is the Managing Editor of the Hawai’i Review.
A brief interview with Henry Wei Leung
(conducted by Gillian Olivia Blythe Hamel)
I was thrilled to see Goddess of Democracy win the Omnidawn 1st/2nd Poetry Book Prize – when I read it in the contest, the hybridity of its form immediately struck me in its ability to both encompass and illustrate the blind spots in its subject, with threads of documentary, imagistic fragmentation, and lyric essay woven throughout. I’d love to hear you talk about how this book formed and fomented for you – was there any one mode that initially catalyzed the work?
It started with the second-person. The lyric so often distills in the “I,” but what would a poetics look like if it could shift from “look at me,” or even “look at this,” to instead become: “look at you”? If the words were less like confession and more like prayer?
The poem that opens the book comes from an evening a few years ago, when a friend snuck me into his medical school’s anatomy lab. He showed me the cadavers, we put on gloves, folded back the ribs, and held the organs inside. He was very cavalier about it, even patting one of the cadavers on the head and saying, “Yup, this is a good one.” It wasn’t until after we left that he explained why he had brought me there. He spent so much time in that room, he said, that it had become a cold place. He stood over the cadavers memorizing facts and worrying about grades and test scores. These people had done the right thing, he said, by donating their bodies to science; but they had become objects. The faces usually remained covered, and some of the students even used the cadavers to play pranks on each other at night. He brought me there because he wanted me to write about it, wanted someone to help him see it in a different way again.
The poem came out in the second-person. It wasn’t addressed to my friend. Nor was it to some mirror of myself; nor to you. At first, I thought I was writing to the woman whose body I had held from the inside out that night. Yet I knew nothing about her, and could hardly remember her face. I had spent that night in an incredibly complex, problematic, illegal, brief intimacy with someone who, in a way, didn’t really exist. Not an implied reader, not quite an idea, neither a mere body nor a full subjectivity, absent of biography, emotionally real, a consciousness we can neither identify nor afford to neglect: I call this the “lyric you.”
I’d like to ask particularly about the visual quality of this work. Poems weave around the page, interspersed with reproductions of banners and signs, and the movement of the text across the series of erasures illustrates how the attention to and perception of a historical moment can shift over time. Could you speak to your relationship to the text as a visual medium? How does this align with/differ from the semantic effects of the language?
My original purpose in Hong Kong, before the protests broke out, was to explore English in the plural. This was under a research grant I had pursued partly in reaction to New Criticism, Hollywood, and all these standardized narrative frameworks that pretended to hold a monopoly on what the human story was. The research was intended to prove what is in many ways obvious: that our stories are culturally and linguistically circumscribed, and that literature’s vitality in fact depends on facing up to these circumscriptions. Hence going to a “world” city that struggles so much with telling its own story because the world keeps imposing the universal upon it. I mean of course that Hong Kong has been gobbled up for other countries’ economic needs, but I also mean language—first a colonial English, now a colonial Mandarin—and how the doors to people’s stories are opened or closed by such languages. To recognize all this is to recognize the objectness of words, to see that they are more than placeholders and actually exist in space. Once the protests began, my research plan took a drastic turn, but I didn’t stop considering these issues. The more uneasy I felt, for example, about the rhetorical spinning of “democracy” by all the parties involved, the more the word looked like an object-thing: literally a symbol, literally marking boundaries and determining spaces, and of course carrying different weights when written in English or in Chinese.
The erasure poems have a similar objectness, and they serve a practical function in the book. They’re not based on a well-known or public text. Just the opposite: the base text was something new, and essential for exactly that reason. But putting a timeline in a poetry book is like starting a novel with a family tree: who’ll read it? So I started erasing, started taking away. Not surprisingly, this means the reader has to develop a relationship with the thing being erased. You don’t get to take part in the deconstruction of the text; but you are in on the re-constructing of it. My hope is that this makes it matter to you.
In reading and rereading this work through the contest and editorial stages, I’m continually impressed by its willingness to explore exhaustively the necessity, the valorization, and the failure of political action and the artist’s response to/engagement with political action. You closely examine the differences between the act of witnessing history and the act of engaging with/understanding it, which in turn is paralleled by the distinction between participating as an individual who may belong to a specific inside/outside community and as a writer, a role that is often purported to bridge such divides. I’d love to hear you say more about your conception of these divisions as you were writing this book.
I’ve stared at this question for a week and been unable to answer it—partly because the whole book is my answer; partly because the whole book is my failure to answer. In some ways, the project of these poems is a refusal to be. The section titles, a series of negations from different religious and idiomatic traditions, try to wedge their way into a complicated ethics of identity and positionality. Sometimes it’s just safer to say what you’re not than to say what you are. And maybe you can only be, at all, by negating everything. I think of the lyric in Joyce’s way: the cry of Sisyphus in the moment when he heaves the boulder over the edge, just before it starts to roll back down on him—a full-bodied, committed cry that comes to nothing in the end. He never makes it over, never becomes other than what he is; nor does he ever stop trying. I don’t read the Sisyphus myth as the futility of effort. I read it as a commitment to life, as a confrontation with the wall of necessity, even though we may never pass through that wall. I read it as survival.
I’d love for you to talk about any writers, artists, thinkers who have influenced you in this work; in what direct or indirect ways have you felt this influence? And perhaps you could talk about who you’re reading currently? With whom do you feel a kinship, a provocation, a catalyzing relationship of some kind?
At the start of the protests, I kept thinking of Audre Lorde, saying to an audience in 1977: “Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of one of your fears. Because I am a woman, because I am Black, because I am lesbian, because I am myself—a Black woman warrior poet doing my work—come to ask you, are you doing yours?” I kept thinking about her anger and her grace, and her relationship to death and language. I kept thinking of Simone Weil, whose life was an unrelenting poetics of surrender, who consistently found the divine in difficulty. I kept thinking of Jennifer Chang, who wrote, “Be the poem you want to write. And then write it.” I kept thinking of Olujide, to whom I once confessed that I needed ten more years of life experience to write the things I was trying to write, and he replied, “You don’t need ten years. You need the willingness to transform yourself now.”
Would you tell me a bit about yourself? Anything you might wish to share that would give a reader more insight into your life and work?
Next month, my wife and I are visiting NYU Shanghai to give a reading. Both of our books deal with facts that are politically sensitive in mainland China (the title of mine is a dead giveaway, and once I started sending the manuscript around we both understood that, even in Hong Kong, if I were to find a teaching post in literature I wouldn’t be able to hold it for long). We’ve been assured that we’ll have the same academic freedom there as we would in New York. All the same, we will both be censoring ourselves.
My younger, unmarried self would be appalled to hear this. Some of the others I’ve spoken to have had surprisingly predictable responses, and I could line them up based on their relative privilege and how much they might have to lose in a place like China. I was once baffled by a statement by Hisham Matar, a Libyan novelist who had published things that had put him and his family in danger, who said in hindsight that maybe the more courageous thing would have been to stay silent. I couldn’t understand it. Then I got married, and now I understand. I can’t afford the same bravado of my youth. Bravery is something else.
You were instrumental in the selection of the image that is used in the cover design for this book. Would you describe your considerations regarding the cover image? How does this cover align with your intentions for the book?
I saw “Absent of Speech” at a gallery exhibit with my wife just before we left Hong Kong. It was easily the most interesting piece in that space, an “erasure poetry” of another kind. I met the artist briefly, and I appreciate that he brings art and politics together without any pretense. It’s an honor to have his work on the cover, to foreground my poems with the artwork of a Hongkonger. My wife, who was working in the Hong Kong art world when I met her, was also crucial in the process of selecting the image, and in talking through what the cover could be with me. I’m grateful for your design vision as well! I hope the cover opens a window for readers, before they even begin to read. Thank you for all your hard work, and for taking the time to think through this book with me.
life sentences sonnet for the Goddess
Tiananmen Square, June 1989
You were born in papier-mâché, a face plastered white, a thirty- three foot emolument on the fourth day, facing the portrait of the Chairman of Mao.
Father died that year we snuck through Hong Kong for San Francisco you were not the Statue of Liberty we landed in the great quake.
Nushen, “goddess” – not far from nusheng, “schoolgirl” – your hair cropped like Mother’s – like that girl ruling masses from a megaphone – her skinny hand pocketed – her four abortions.
And wasn’t I the forgery of a body never meant, never mine, never mind, so that someone in the rubble would forever look like me?
Goddess, your body was expedited from the body of a man leaning on a pole, flipped upright. Severed, his pole became your torch.
Some people have stared at heaven’s gate for decades waiting for a sign. Some people settled, and settle for seams.
A tank severed your hand, then the rest. You reemerged in harder mediums in tourist troves, where I was taught to lust for image, just images.
I fell in love with love’s treasons. Which of these remain forbidden words: goddess, swallow, roam, freedom, I?
G.O.D. in Hong Kong means Goods of Desire, a fashion brand which sounds like jyu hou di: “live better.” Does anyone say “God” except at first mistaken sight? Goddess of—
One day, my heartbeat quit its symmetry. An EKG said A.Fib and asked if I’d had heart attacks before this? I died of—
A place can be a people, just as grammar is the making of a religion. Why does this language only desire nouns and noun states and not move? Body of—
Listen: that year we were two eggs from one hen, dipped in black ink. We were thrown at the portrait of the Chairman of Mao. A thunderstorm washed us clean, washing the aberration.
But I’ve never had heart failure. But the machines insist. The machines insist.
What I mean is: we were the aberration. What I mean is: Let me be your country. Let me be nothing for you.